Back to the future

Published on: September 30, 2010



mitch02Last night I dreamed about the future. My dream was set 30 years from now; yet, through the magic of dreams, I was 20 years younger than I am today. Based on that dream, I can report that things will be somewhat different in 2040 — much of what we consider cutting edge today will be considered old-fashioned, yet still in use.

In that dream, 2010 cars were still on the road much as 1980 cars are still seen today; but the latest means of transportation was much different.

In the past, I’ve stated my utter disappointment with the future as it has become. A child of the 1960s, I was convinced that by 2010 we would have flying cars. Where are the flying cars? C’mon people! It’s not like this is rocket science! Okay, well maybe it is a little.

If we could go back to 1960 and poll the editors, writers and readers of Popular Science, you would be hard-pressed to find a single soul who did not imagine flying cars by the year 2010. Of course to time travel, we probably need flying cars which, as everyone is painfully aware, do not exist.

There was an enormous swelling of optimism about the future in the 1950s and 1960s. Part of that may well have been in response to what appeared to be stark realities. People were suddenly confronted with the fact that we had the technology to annihilate the planet and ourselves. People became aware of the exponential increases in population that would soon consume the world’s resources, as they were understood at that time. Thus there were two choices; either accept the gloom and doom of the new realities, or believe in the future of the Jetsons and Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. Choosing the latter was infinitely better than choosing the former; the one in which devastating war, overcrowding and starvation appeared to be all but certain.

Only 24 episodes of the original Jetsons cartoon were made; yet those few episodes struck a deep chord with an entire generation. As recently as 2007, celebrities such as George Clooney, Chris Rock and Bruce Springsteen told the Wall Street Journal that they, too, grew up expecting flying cars by now based on seeing the lives of the Jetson family. And, like me, they want them now, please.

It turns out that not all predictions of the future from that era were outlandish, some just appeared to be that way at the time. In 1958, Senator Jacob Javits, a Republican from New York, wrote an essay for Esquire Magazine that predicted that by the year 2000 the United States could elect a black president. Keep in mind that 1958 was in an era of poll taxes, which effectively served to prevent poor minorities, and certainly the descendants of slaves, from voting. When Javits’ article was published, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still six years away. He made his prediction based on improvements he had seen in minority relations over his lifetime. He extrapolated those improvements to making the prediction of not only a black president and 30 to 40 black members of congress by the year 2000; but also suggested there could be a black supreme court justice by the year 1968. In almost all accounts, he was right — or at least close enough. In the 106th Congress of 2000, there were 36 black members of congress. And, just nine years after his article was published, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1967.

Despite predictions that no doubt appeared impossible to many people at the time, he also included a pragmatic view of the realities. The future would be better, but not perfect. About the first black president, Javits wrote:

“Assuredly, though, despite his other characteristics, he will have developed the fortitude to withstand the vicious smear attacks that came his way as he fought to the top in government and politics. While we can expect an end to racial and religious discrimination by 2000, the transformation will not be easy and those in the vanguard may expect to be the targets for scurrilous attacks, as the hate mongers, in their last-ditch efforts, spew their verbal and written poison.”

Is that what President Obama is grappling with today? Ironically, Javits himself indirectly answered that question elsewhere in the article by saying such questions are akin to asking “Have you stopped beating your grandmother yet?” That is a loaded question which assumes and implies the worst.

The President’s problems may have an element of racial hatred, but are more likely due to the unrealistically high expectations fostered during his campaign. That he has failed to live up to some of those expectations should generally be considered a good thing. After all, no one person in the United States of America should have the power to institute the radical change suggested by the expectations placed upon him. Given that power, he wouldn’t be an elected president; he would have to be a king.

I wondered if Senator Javits, given his amazing intellect and prescience, ever weighed in on the flying car issue. A quick Google search using the terms, “Jacob Javits” and “Flying Cars” revealed only links to automobile shows being held in Javits Center, the large exhibition complex named in honor of the late senator who passed away in 1986. That nothing he saw included flying cars should have been an indication. We can overcome discrimination, but we just can’t seem to get a car to fly for mass production.

Senator Javits, writing from an era in which the flames of racial conflict were rising all across the nation, looked beyond the ugly present to see a better day. He saw a day in which it wouldn’t matter if you were white, black or green; or Catholic, Protestant, Mormon or Jewish. He saw it 52 years ago. A few years later, the Jetsons simply made visions of the future look cool. Too cool.

At one point in my dream, the people in it, along with myself, discovered a problem in the world. I have no idea what it was but knew it was serious — or so it felt. We were on what appeared to be the bridge of the original Starship Enterprise. We had much of the technology envisioned by the show’s creators, except photon torpedoes and phasers we could set to stun (and believe me, I would remember having photon torpedoes and a phaser). We put ourselves to work to overcome the situation I saw only in my dream.

Before the world’s problems were solved, my eyes opened to the early morning light. I awoke feeling good, feeling confident that we were on our way to solving them. My optimism for the future remains intact — even in my dreams. Things are going to be okay. Now, we just need flying cars.

Senator Javits’ 1958 Esquire Magazine article is online at